There’s a pressing political economy question that comes up a lot these days: why aren’t the president or the Democrats getting more credit for the improving economy? The first figure below is my standard response. If GDP, corporate profits and the stock market more directly reached the middle class, things might be different.

International comparisons also shine some light on the issue. Basically, what you find when you dig into three bins of numbers — macro trends, such as GDP; micro trends, such as wages; and polling results — is that it’s not just growth, it’s how that growth is distributed that matters most to people.

Let me clarify: without macroeconomic growth — expanding GDP — there’s nothing to distribute, so obviously growth is a necessary prerequisite. But it can’t help lower and middle income families if it doesn’t reach them — an obvious point, I know, but still an important one.

Germany presents an instructive example. The German economy is slowing down in part because its export-led growth model is hard to sustain when neighboring countries are doing poorly. According to the IMF, real GDP in Germany was up only 0.5 percent last year compared to 2.2 percent in the United States and 1.7 percent in Britain.

Yet, while German real wage trends were flat for years in the 2000s, they’ve been rising lately at a decent clip. Between 2009 and 2012, real German wages are up 3.5 percent, U.S. wages are flat, and British wages are down sharply, by 4.5 percent. (These statistics can all be found here.)

Meanwhile, international Pew polling data shown below reveal that while people’s feelings about these economies have all improved as the Great Recession fades, they’ve improved twice as much in Germany as in the United States or Britain.

Note also that the German trend starts from a higher level. That’s likely because Germany labor market policy proactively sacrificed productivity growth to protect employment in the downturn. That is, their GDP initially fell as much as ours in the downturn, but they implemented “work-sharing” policies that reduced workers’ hours in lieu of layoffs (and offset part of their lost pay with public benefits; we actually have such a program here as well, but it’s not used enough).

As I alluded to above (and Harold Meyerson provides important details), Germany’s recent macro problems are partly of their own making — both their way too austere fiscal policy and their trade surpluses have contributed to weak demand throughout the euro zone — so I’m not saying they’ve got this all figured out. But through labor market policies, such as work-sharing and high rates of collective bargaining, they’ve done a much better job reflecting the needs of working people in their national policy agenda.

Again, it’s a simple and obvious point, but if you want to know why people here — despite our better macro-growth and improving job market — are less sanguine about the economy and not that politically engaged, it may well be that the indicators that are doing the best are not the ones that they care about most.

If we want people to engage in the policy debate, then we need to debate the policies that will reconnect their economic fortunes to the expanding macroeconomy. And what are those policies? That’s the subject of my next post, so stay tuned!